After receiving a $3 million Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship, or IGERT, award from the National Science Foundation, the UCSB Graduate Division will be enrolling Ph.D. candidates for a new five-year fellowship program in the emerging field of networks science next fall quarter.

As the National Science Foundation’s interdisciplinary training program, IGERT brings together students and faculty from the departments of computer science, communication, ecology, evolution & marine biology, electrical & computer engineering, geography, mechanical engineering and sociology. The new IGERT-granted fellowship program aims to allow students to effectively study and research Big Data — which includes large data sets that are too big for commonly used software tools — and to make headway in understanding how complicated networks function.

UCSB was among three schools selected from a pool of 54 applicants from around the country for the IGERT award. The other two awardees were the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Washington. The application period for the program is open now, with six spots available for the first class of students enrolling next fall.

IGERT Program Director Richard Boone said networks science, an interdisciplinary field that combines together all the earlier-mentioned academic areas, is still emerging as a new area of study, making UCSB a pioneer in its development.

“Research in networks science is a growing activity; it’s a field that’s evolving quickly,” Boone said. “UCSB is in a really strong position to provide the next generation of scientists to work in this area.”

According to sociology professor John Mohr, who was the co-principle investigator on the grant proposal, the training provided through IGERT will give Ph.D. candidates an interdisciplinary edge in their respective fields. By including the perspectives of various academic fields, networks science has the ability to offer more well-rounded research and findings, Mohr said.

“The hunch is that if you put those people together in one bowl and shake them around you come out with something more interesting and more productive than if they were all separate,” Mohr said.

Dean of Sciences in the College of Letters and Science Pierre Wiltzius said the grant represents an opportunity for UCSB to educate students in ways the university has not done before.

“This grant is a great example of interdisciplinary research between computer science, dynamics and control theory, biology and the social sciences,” Wiltzius said. “Particular emphasis will be placed on the diversity of the research community.”

According to Tim Robinson, an analyst with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the program has an enrollment target of 70 percent women and underrepresented minorities from UCSB, with recruitment efforts taking place at CSU San Bernardino, CSU Los Angeles, UC Merced and the University of New Mexico.

“Just as the program itself will add diversity to the education of Ph.D. students in separate departments … so too, will it add diversity to the academic community,” Robinson said.

The fellowship program is the result of efforts by computer science professor Ambuj Singh, as well as computer science professors Divyakant Agrawal and Subhash Suri, sociology professor Mohr and professor of ecology, evolution and marine biology Stephen Proulx.

According to Mohr, structured online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook provide social scientists with unprecedented amounts of information from hundreds of thousands of people. Thus, such sites act as a prime example of networks that generate vast quantities of data that researchers never before had easy access to.

“This completely changes the game,” Mohr said. “Suddenly, data is just being produced for us like a giant fire hose, so what we have to figure out is how to get students who can be trained adequately to take advantage of these new research opportunities that just didn’t exist ten years ago.”

The challenges of studying big data and the complicated networks that generate it vary from one discipline to another, according to Suri, who is chair of the computer science department. Suri said the greatest challenge for computer scientists is establishing ways to understand how big networks function using algorithms.

“People like me really want to understand the fundamental algorithmic problems,” Suri said. “We want to design algorithmic tools to understand the structure of large scale networks.”

One such network Suri hopes will be better understood by advances in networks science is the functioning of the human brain. He likens our current understanding of the brain to a person’s first interactions with computers.

“Imagine an alien lands on earth, has never seen a computer before, and finds a chip or a computer, and doesn’t understand its purpose or design,” Suri said. “What do they do with it? They begin to study it, power it on … at the brain level, we understand that some neurons get fired, but what is the logic behind it?”



A version of this article appeared on page 1 of the Monday, November 4, 2013 print edition of the Daily Nexus.